Monday, December 15, 2014

Big people do small things and lose everything? Why do power-lust, greed, ego rule the world?

Why does N. Srinivasan hang on to his cricket chair when every milligram of his credibility is gone? Why did Manmohan Singh cling to prime ministership even after he was reduced to an object of ridicule? Why did Rampal order pitched battles against the police leading to the death of at least five women and a child when he didn't have a chance in hell of winning? Why did Rajat Gupta, such a celebrated management icon, do insider trading that landed him in a US prison? Why did Subrata Roy, an innovative genius and buddy of everyone who mattered, find himself in Tihar?

Questions without answers pile up around us. In politics, business, sports and even spirituality, big people do small things unworthy of their position. Not only do they not gain anything, they actually lose their prestige and often their way of life. Does the explanation lie in philosophy? There is consolation of sorts in the poetic precept that all human things are subject to decay, and when fate summons, monarchs must obey. Was it the summons of fate that led to the fall of Subrata Roy and Rampal, of Manmohan Singh and Srinivasan?

The former Primer Minister and the cricket tzar are unique, though in opposite ways; the one had public sympathy pouring out for him, while the other was covered with disgrace. The considerateness Manmohan Singh received was spontaneous because of his nature and the circumstances of his mortification. Here was a man who stood tall on two pedestals: goodness as a human being and international eminence as an economist. Being apolitical, he needed political backing to do well in an essentially political setup. He got this when he teamed up with P.V.Narasimha Rao -- and he reached heights of glory. He did not get similar backing when he teamed up with Sonia Gandhi whose agenda was family-oriented. To the extent she did her job well, to that extent Manmohan Singh's job was compromised.

Only once during his 10-year term did Dr. Singh find the courage to stand up for what he thought right. Even then, he stood up against the Left Front, not against Sonia Gandhi. The Left had threatened to withdraw support to his Government over the US nuclear deal. Facing the prospect of the Government not having the numbers to pass the bill, the Prime Minister decided to resign and conveyed his decision to Sonia and Pranab Mukherjee at a secret meeting in the Prime Minister's house. Eventually the PM had his way because the Samajwadi Party switched policy and supported the Government. In historical terms, though, the victory was nothing big because of the controversial nature of the nuclear deal. It did nothing to correct the image of Manmohan Singh as an inconsequential Prime Minister.

N. Srinivasan is an assertive personality in contrast to the ever-yielding Manmohan Singh. While Indian cricket has been a bedlam of personality clashes, conspiracies, manipulations and politics of the meanest kind, no one took it to the "me-first" depths that Srinivasan contrived. There were several occasions when shenanigans around him were exposed and he could have withdrawn with dignity. But he chose to fight even the Supreme Court's unambiguous remarks.

"You are presuming there is nothing against you", said the Supreme Court. "You can't use BCCI rules to say you will stand for elections because the doctrine of public trust will apply". Even more pointedly, it said: "The ownership of the team raises conflict of interest. [Srinivasan is the managing director of India Cements which owns the Chennai Super Kings; its captain, M. S. Dhoni, is Vice President of India Cements.] President of the BCCI has to run the show but you have a team". Such castigations would be sufficient for an honourable man to quietly leave the scene. But Srinivasan is always looking for a tiny loophole somewhere in the labyrinth of law. Even if he finds one, he will remain in the record books as the man under whom Indian cricket was shamed by what Bishan Singh Bedi called "abnormal hunger for power and insatiable greed for money".

Duryodhana was holding out a lesson for all of us when he confessed that he knew what was dharma but had no urge to follow it. It was only in humans that the Creator planted such cosmic contradictions. All religions warn against ego. Sikhism includes it in one of the Panch Dosh, five evils. Taoism equates enlightenment with the annihilation of the ego. But ego rules the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

An activist Judge with Aristotle's mental range. Fearless Krishna Iyer was a game changer

If style maketh the man, opinion maketh the judge. A wise opinion memorably expressed goes directly into the conscience of society and the annals of time. Such was the opinion: "Law without politics is blind. Politics without law is deaf". It was an aphorism that marked the personality, the commitment and the intellectualism of Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer. Some 700 judgments he pronounced from the bench of the Supreme Court and all of them were studded with bold ideas boldly expressed. They all had but one aim: Uphold the human rights of ordinary people, even of detainee suspects (he pronounced against handcuffing as a routine) and jailed convicts (he took up a prisoner's letter about torture as a public interest litigation).

India's judicial firmament is full of shining stars. (The Emergency years showed that there were also judges who were unworthy of their calling). Fali Nariman in his autobiography cites some examples of the great, such as Vivian Bose, S.R. Das and P.B.Gajendragadkar. He then says that as "pathfinders" he could name only two: Justice K.Subba Rao and Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer. More than all others "they influenced creative judicial thinking. They lighted new, difficult (and different) paths - paths which others followed".

The lay public is not all that familiar with the Subba Rao saga, but the legal fraternity remembers with reverence his efforts to ensure the sanctity of citizens' personal liberties. As Nariman puts it, Subba Rao's "concern for fundamental rights and his distrust of parliamentary majority led to some of his most controversial decisions. He abhorred absolute power - especially the arrogance of absolute power" whether exercised by the executive or the legislature.

If Subba Rao's agenda was to make politics subservient to law, Krishna Iyer's was to make law serve the ends of social justice. He became arguably the most famous of Supreme Court judges. One reason was his activism which increased after his retirement in 1980. There was no people's cause that he did not champion; at the age of 99 he even sat in dharna demanding a cancer centre for Kochi. He was interested in practically all subjects; one of the 105 books he authored was on life after death. Former Chief Justice of India, M.N.Venkatachaliah put it best when he said "the range of Krishna Iyer's mind was that of Aristotle".

But the big reason for his fame was, ironically, his judgment in a political case - the election case appeal by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Krishna Iyer was a junior puisne judge in the Supreme Court at that time. It was just an accident that the appeal came up before him. It was summer recess for the court and Krishna Iyer happened to be filling in as vacation judge. That was when Indira Gandhi approached the court pleading for an absolute stay on the Allahabad High Court's verdict disqualifying her.

Indira Gandhi was at the height of her power. It was not incumbent on the junior vacation judge to take up the case. He could have just as well granted a stay till the reopening of the court when a proper bench of three or four judges could have given a decision. But this was Krishna Iyer who had what Nariman called "that abiding quality of a great judge - he was fearless". Taking the full weight of responsibility upon himself, the vacation judge heard the arguments nonstop for six hours, three each by Nani Palkhivala (for Indira Gandhi) and Shanti Bhushan (for Raj Narain). It was 2 o'clock in the morning when the writing of the judgment was completed. The court rejected the plea for a complete stay of the High Court verdict and allowed only a partial stay. Indira Gandhi was allowed to function as Prime Minister, but without the right to vote in Parliament. The order was handed down on July 24. On July 25 Emergency was proclaimed.

To understand the extent of Krishna Iyer's courage in passing that judgment, we must know that Palkhivala had sounded a warning during the argument. His words were: "The nation was solidly behind (Indira) as Prime Minister" and "there were momentous consequences, disastrous to the country, if anything less than the total suspension of the order under appeal were made". Krishna Iyer remained undaunted. Constitutional lawyer M.Seervai, usually a critic of Krishna Iyer, described this as the Supreme Court's finest hour. Was that the same as saying that V.R.Krishna Iyer was India's finest judge? His one judgment certainly changed the game for Indian history.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Kashmir has an 'overwhelming desire for change'. But will the coming change be for the better?

The good news is that the first round of polling in Jammu & Kashmir saw the highest turnout in the state's electoral history. The overall percentage was 71 but in some constituencies it went up to 77 and 80. Leh in Ladakh saw a drop, but even this was extraordinary. The temperature there had dropped to 10 degrees below zero, yet the number of voters dropped only from 68.9 percent to 65.2 percent. This election is the people's most decisive reply to the secessionists, the separatists and the terrorists who had all called for a boycott of the voting. It is now clear that the separatists are separated from the general sentiment of the people.

So what's the bad news? If we look behind the parties and their posturings, we can see that whoever wins will make no difference in practice. All the leaders who attained power in the past primarily served their parties and themselves (with the possible exception of brief interludes under Sheikh Abdullah and then Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed). This is not unique to J & K. Elsewhere, too, widely welcomed change turned out to be disappointing, for example, B. S. Yeddyurappa and Mamata Banerji. How can J & K become an exception overnight?

Not that change is not in the air. In fact this election may mark the start of a whole new chapter in the state's history. Kashmiris had become as disgusted with the father-son dynasty rule in Srinagar as Indians in general had with the mother-son rule in Delhi. A defeat of the Abdullah dynasty as resounding as the defeat of the Gandhi dynasty would therefore be in order. The traditional challenger of the Abdullahs are the Muftis with their People's Democratic Party. The PDP is not weighed down by the incumbency millstone, but it has the dynasty millstone and a non-performance track record. It cannot expect significant voter backing. The Congress may turn out to be nothing more than an also-ran. Contextual advantage thus lies with the BJP. When people are driven by "an overwhelming desire for change" (Mehbooba Mufti's phrase), the BJP offers just that. It also has the unrivalled advantage of campaigning by the country's most gifted orator-campaigner. The BJP certainly will be a change, but whether the change will be for the better is far from clear.

The reason for this reservation is that J & K has already been turned into a communal cauldron. The BJP finds such situations ideal for its growth as recent events in election-bound states have shown. Preoccupation with divisive sectarianism has stood in the way of J & K making any meaningful progress on the economic, educational or social front. If this has to change, the state will need a political dispensation that puts down communal elements and unites the people for collective socio-economic growth. There is no evidence that the BJP is ready for such moves just now.

What can be said in its favour is that it did not start the communalisation of J & K. To a large extent, history did. Even in the 15th and 16th centuries, the norm was: Whichever community had the protection of the ruler of the day violated others. As David Devadas puts it in his In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir, "When Pathan governors let them, Muslims merrily bounced on to the backs of Pandits, riding them like asses. Under Dogras, Pandits kicked Muslims all the way home. When Shias ruled, a Sunni qasi was trampled under an elephant. When Sunnis ruled, the Shias' most revered grave became a burnt dung-heap".

This was communal oneupmanship of convenience. It could have been contained by an enlightened leadership. Instead, what happened in our own times was the cynical exploitation of antagonisms for political gain. This was the contribution of Indira Gandhi. Just as she turned Punjab into a battleground by discovering Bindranwale, and polarised Assam into Bengalis and Assamese with the contrived election of 1983, so did she undermine the political stability of J & K by first forcing Farooq Abdullah to share power with the Congress in 1986 and then toppling his Government through organised defection. The 1987 election in J & K became notorious for rigging. Disillusioned young supporters of local parties turned to militancy.

India remains a functioning anarchy because leaders refuse to see beyond themselves and their narrow agendas. Since this is the ongoing culture of all political parties, Kashmir could continue to bleed after this election too. Such a pity.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Speed and quality mark the growth of SE Asia's infrastructure. Why are we where we are?

Only a few years ago Bangkok was Southeast Asia's most notorious city for traffic jams. It was common for parents to pick up their kids from school and, while the family vehicle tried to crawl along, give them a bucket wash, help them change into night clothes, go over homework, give them dinner and put them to sleep; the vehicle would still be crawling-stopping-crawling towards home.

Today flyovers crisscross the city in multiple layers. Sky-trains provide fast links to its far corners. Roads are in good condition. There is, as a consequence, a measure of traffic sense among motorists. The number of vehicles on the move is still scary, but those who knew the Bangkok of the 1970s and 80s would be amazed at the way the city has turned into an attractive, livable metropolis. Ditto with Kuala Lumpur. It was a village in the 1970s. It took Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed only about 20 years to make it the glittering capital it is today. Ditto with Jakarta.

The most interesting transformation currently under way is in Vietnam. The war ended only 40 years ago. Considering that extra-lethal chemical weapons were specially developed by America to destroy the earth and ecology of Vietnam, independence found the country poor. There are vast tracts of wasteland sarcastically called "Agent Orange museums" in memory of the death-dealing chemical that was extensively used by the US air force. Nevertheless, economic rebuilding has been progressing steadily. Massive infrastructure projects are under way with Japanese and Chinese assistance. Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) already looks like a New York or Tokyo.

To see the industriousness of the Vietnamese, one must go to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. A cross between Mumbai's Bhendi Bazaar and Delhi's Chandni Chowk, it is a cobweb of narrow streets through which, by some miracle, an unending flow of cars, buses, electric trailers, bicycles, scooters and more scooters, goods vehicles and rickshaws called cyclos cross one another's paths without knocking down any of the zigzagging locals, upcountry visitors, traders, hawkers and wonderstruck tourists. Every inch of the footpath is occupied, either by parked bikes, or pavement workshops, or stools of the city's fabled street-food eateries. Not a soul is idle. The Old Quarter is the heart throb of Hanoi.

But it is only a corner of the vast city. It's outside the Old Quarter that you begin to realise that Hanoi is a charming modern city, having retained the broad boulevards, the grand old trees and the continental ambience of the French era. Every available public space is a lovingly maintained park. Ancient structures proclaim the antiquity of the place and its civilisation. In the early years of the first century guerilla warfare was invented by two Vietnamese women against Chinese occupiers.

In a tree-dense areas of Hanoi nestles what looks like a Vietnamese speciality, the "Temple of Literature". (There is another Temple of Literature in Hue, central Vietnam). Founded in 1070 this commemorates Vietnam's great men of letters. It is as much a spiritual retreat as a house of learning. Notices greet visitors with instructions such as "Behave in a civilised manner. Please do not swear". The obviously hallowed space was also home to Vietnam's first university, founded in 1076. Oxford, described as the oldest university in the English-speaking world, began developing only in 1167 although there was "evidence of teaching" in Oxford from 1096. The only university older than the Hanoi one is the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco, functioning from 859.

Hardworking population, pioneering guerilla women, ancient culture, love of scholarship -- perhaps there is nothing surprising in Vietnam becoming the only country in history to defeat America in war. However, modern Vietnam has also developed the telltale habits of modernity. Tourists often fall into traps operated by touts, dubious taxi companies and spurious hotels. Online football betting is a flourishing racket. You need to develop local savvy to ensure that you are not getting adulterated petrol at filling stations. When progress comes, can mafias be far behind?

But the pluses outweigh the minuses. With Vietnam catching up fast, international experts are predicting accelerated growth for the ASEAN region. They say that cross-border integration alone would bring about an open market of 600 million people with economic opportunities worth $ 280 billion to 615 billion by 2030. Benefits from urbanisation and technological advancement will add billions more to annual economic impact. The Look East idea has never made more sense to India than now. Provided we learn.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hong Kong: The Civil Disobedience Movement Looks Like a College Kids' Game. But It's Real Serious

The protest movement in Hong Kong is a modern-day political wonder. Reason one: To demand Western-style democracy in a part of China is plain mad; for lesser audacity vast numbers of people in Tibet and the Muslim area of Uighur have paid dearly. Reason two: Authorities in Beijing have avoided a Tienanmen model crackdown, apparently because a violent interdiction would have undermined business, Hong Kong's lifeblood, and rattled world opinion at a time when Beijing is working towards a world leadership role.

China won't yield an inch to the protestors. But that does not mean that the so-called Occupy movement, also called democracy movement, is a non-event. That it has lasted two months is an achievement in itself. More importantly, it has energised the youth and attracted large segments of the general public, holding up the message that Hong Kong has changed. For a century and a half it had remained a happily docile colony of Britain, firm in its belief that the freedom to make money was the only freedom that mattered. Democracy never bothered either the ruler or the ruled. China actually injected a tiny dose of democracy into this system. Earlier Britain merely nominated a Governor and he ruled as the colony's lord and master.For the election of the next Chief Executive (as Governor is now called) in 2017, China offered universal franchise for all citizens in Hong Kong, a first-ever "reform". The catch was that voters' choice was limited to a panel of two or three names nominated by a China-controlled 1200-member committee. In other words, the right to vote was given to all, but the right to stand as candidate was given to none. It was against this little trick that students took to the streets.

They did so in a unique manner. Despite a skirmish or two, overall it was a disciplined and stylish movement. They did not look like agitators in the first place. They were dressed in city casuals reflecting -- this being Hong Kong -- uptodate international fashion. They were polite with the public. They were meticulous about cleaning the streets they occupied, collecting their garbage in big plastic bags for disposal. They called their protest a civil disobedience movement but emphasised that civil disobedience was not defiance of the rule of law but acceptance of it. Some of the leaders were no older than 17 and 18. Many talked of parents pressurising them to get back to classes. One bright young man with a nattily shaped hair style told this writer that he was returning to his research at Hong Kong University but that didn't mean he was withdrawing from the movement. The University campus was leafy, peaceful and busy as always.

The question is: Why has this new generation of Hong Kong citizens taken on China's mighty power structure when their elders were content to be apolitical until just two decades ago? Basically there are two issues, political and cultural. Politically Hongkongers fear that China is becoming more rigid under President Xi Jinping. He has been neutralising powerful leaders one by one using corruption charges as his weapon. At this rate, would he one day crush the freedoms that Hongkong people have come to take for granted? This antipathy to Xi's China is intensified by the behaviour of visitors from the mainland. Hong Kong's people are for long used to the niceties and adjustments of international living. The mainlanders, as visitors from China are called locally, are crude by comparison, talking loudly in public spaces and behaving without any civic sense. The story of a mainlander mother letting her child do No. 1 in a crowded Metro train is the most discussed folk tale in Hong Kong these days.

The cultural divide goes really deep. Hong Kong's filmmakers say that mainland audiences are difficult and different. Hong Kong's universities, people say, are rated higher than China's thanks to a tradition of intellectual freedom. The new generation in Hong Kong feels that its precious cultural edge would be lost if China takes full control of Hong Kong. They are not alone. The new generation in Taiwan is also embittered by an apparently hardening China. Within the mainland itself the young often revolt but are firmly suppressed. The Chinese-language Apple Daily of Hong Kong, founded in 1995, has been anti-China to the extent of once calling on people to rise in revolt against Beijing. Last week an academic survey revealed that only 8.9 percent of Hongkongers call themselves Chinese. This is a historical shift: not just Tibetans and Uighurs, but Chinese turning against communist China.